In the footsteps of Hampstead’s modernists

Published 4 July 2020

Hampstead in the 1930s was populated with modernist artists and architects. As Caroline Maclean gives a tour of the area, look out for the reference numbers on our illustrated map below.

  • Caroline Maclean is the author of Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists (Bloomsbury).

    From the Summer 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

  • Just off Tasker Road in London’s Belsize Park there’s a wooden gate onto an overgrown path leading to what looks like a row of small cottages: the Mall Studios (1). In 1928 Barbara Hepworth and her husband, sculptor John Skeaping, moved into No. 7 at the far end. Once inside, the space opened out onto a double height room with a 20ft window and mezzanine gallery.

    In 1931 they met the artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson. After spending an evening at the Mall Studios, Ben left a couple of his paintings with his hosts. Barbara wrote the next day to say they looked marvellous on their wall and that she had a feeling of power, as though something momentous had happened. Six months later John moved out and Ben moved into No. 7.

    Around the corner, at 11A Parkhill Road (2), Henry and Irina Moore lived in a two-bedroom flat with curved outdoor steps leading to a studio below. Some evenings they hired a model at the Mall Studios and opened a bottle of wine afterwards and played shove ha’penny, an old pub game Henry loved.

    During the winter of 1933 a block of flats designed by Wells Coates was being built around the corner on Lawn Road. Known as the Isokon (3), it was a glistening beacon of modernism that offered a new style of living. Coates had set up the Isokon Furniture Company to design modernist homes and furniture with Jack Pritchard – marketing manager for the Venesta plywood company – and his wife Molly, a bacteriologist. Jack and Molly purchased the land on Lawn Road for £1,500 in 1929 and decided to build the block of flats to provide good, semi-communal living. Meals were offered from a central kitchen, and laundry, window cleaning and shoe polishing were available. Molly and Jack lived in the penthouse with an adjoining apartment for their children.

    Having escaped Berlin, the founder director of the Bauhaus Walter Gropius moved into the Isokon with his wife Ise in October 1934, and Gropius later persuaded his Bauhaus colleagues, the painter László Moholy-Nagy and architect Marcel Breuer, to join them in the summer of 1935.

    Further up the hill, in Hampstead village, Jim Ede, founder of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, lived at 1 Elm Row (4) with his wife Helen. Artists, writers, actors and musicians congregated there on Sunday afternoons. Jim and Helen offered simple suppers like macaroni cheese and stewed apples, and then Jim liked to clear everything up early so he could get to bed. A close friend of Hepworth and Nicholson, the art patron Margaret Gardiner lodged with the Edes, before moving to 35 Downshire Hill (5) with the scientist Desmond Bernal.

  • Hampstead Map, Mike Lemanski

    Hampstead Map, Mike Lemanski

    Design by ST, Royal Academy of Arts

  • Downshire Hill was bursting with modernists in the 1930s. Surrealist Roland Penrose moved to 21 Downshire Hill (6) in 1936 and his partner, the photographer Lee Miller, joined him there just before the war. Artist Fred Uhlman and his wife Diana Croft lived at 47 Downshire Hill (7) from 1936, from where they ran the Free German League of Culture and organised exhibitions, lectures and concerts, before Uhlman was interned on the Isle of Man. Ursula and Ernö Goldfinger moved in around the corner to the middle of three modernist terraced houses on Willow Road (8), designed by Ernö in 1938, and now maintained by the National Trust.

    As a war looked increasingly likely, Ben and Barbara persuaded their friend Piet Mondrian to move to Hampstead from Paris. They found him a studio on the ground floor of 60 Parkhill Road (9) just opposite the Mall Studios. He told his brother (a Walt Disney fan like him) that Snow White had cleaned the studio and the ‘squirrel has whitewashed the walls with its tail’. Tellingly, the Dutch painter liked to place squares of primary colours on his white walls, turning them into canvases. Ben said that walking into his friend’s room on a foggy Hampstead night was ‘indeed something’.

    Then the threat of war became reality. Mondrian fled to New York, Walter and Ise Gropius to Connecticut, Ben and Barbara to Cornwall and the Moores to Hertfordshire. Hampstead’s moment of being the centre of international modernism had passed.

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